36th Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series
February 20, 2016
Long Time Here: Prisons and Policing in African-American History
Opening Remarks by Chancellor Nancy Cantor
I am delighted and moved, as always, to welcome our distinguished speakers, our Deputy Mayor Baye Wilson, President Barchi, and our broader Newark community to this 36th Marion Thompson Wright Lecture, in conjunction with the celebration of this remarkable city’s 350th anniversary. I want especially to thank Mark Krasovic and his colleagues at the Clement A. Price Institute, and recognize Mary Sue Sweeney Price and all of Clem’s friends and colleagues here today, as we gather together, scholars and students of criminal justice and the public humanities, and citizens affected by the long continuing narrative—filled with contest and much heartbreak—of policing and prisons in African-American history.
For this year’s theme is arguably the issue of this moment, even as it intersects with so many other struggles—for voting rights, for economic opportunity, for access to quality education– for which Marion Thompson Wright worked so courageously in a civil rights movement that it is now up to us to continue driving forward on the winding road to justice. Whether we focus on mass incarceration, the cradle-to-prison pipeline that grabs so many youth, disconnecting them from their rightful place at the educational table, or the bleak path of re-entry without jobs and hope, and the criminalization of people of color that pervades not only our history but our current national psyche, this theme is the story of today, even as its roots spring from yesterday.
Indeed, some injustices have special freight at particular times by epitomizing all injustice for all time—as the fierce opposition to school integration did in Marion Thompson Wright’s time, and as the injustices surrounding policing and prisons do now. These injustices not only resound with inhumanity but lock human beings away from any other opportunity (economic, social, educational) and strain our faith in freedom in this very imperfect democracy. Their reach extends back in time in eerily similar scenes from America’s past, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Their reach extends now across communities and neighborhoods—where Black Lives Matter—sweeping together the many intersections of identity groups and joining them to campuses across America, to the seats of government, to the courts and the media, to anyone who is honest enough to look in the mirror and see shared responsibility.
When we look in that mirror, we must see how the baggage of history is reflected in how we treat each other now. Some of us are freer—literally and socially—to define how we are seen by others and to control what follows accordingly, while others of us are held captive, prey to a hair trigger to fear on the part of public “servants,” some of whom can behave more like masters than servants, sworn to protect but leaning instead to criminalize and sometimes beat upon those who have inherited the non-shed-able baggage of race. For even as the interweaving of difference makes for a highly fluid American demography, it is still those old binaries (of black and white) and the associated racist narratives honed over centuries that just seem to hang on, prevail, and produce and reproduce inequalities and injustices over generations. And it takes the power of voices that seamlessly mix scholarship, grassroots activism, and public advocacy—as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Heather Ann Thompson, and Khalil Muhammad do so effectively—to awaken our responsibility to try, just try, to change the narrative that lies within us all.
It is time we take some responsibility at last for changing that narrative, and the insidious outcomes it reaps. But we just don’t seem too inclined, as a society, do we? Consider, for example, as Charles Homans noted in the New York Times several weeks ago, the proclivity in the face of police violence to invoke a perfect storm of human error—uncontrollable, out of our hands—as the Cuyahoga County prosecutor did to explain (away) the police killing of 12 year-old, unarmed, Tamir Rice. As Homans says, “The perfect storm is the perfect cop-out. It precludes the possibility that people could have done better, could be better.1 And while revisiting public history can remove some of that cloud cover, it is still up to us to undo it fully, to do better.
And, living in Newark, I believe we can and we just might, do better. We have the history—both of racial criminalization and of vigorous civilian push-back, now given voice in the Mayor’s creation of a civilian complaint review board, as Mark Krasovic documents in his forthcoming book appropriately entitled: The Newark Frontier: Community Action in the Great Society.2 We have generations of people organizing for progress, supported by inter-generational teams of legal activists. We have opportunity youth waiting to be reconnected to educational opportunity. Yes, we have the history and the people, now can we build on that history and build coalitions, as our colleague Timothy Stewart-Winter reminds us happened in the 1970s between LGBT communities pushing back on police raids of gay bars and African-American communities fighting police brutality and leftists challenging police spying?3 While some of the instigating forces may have changed from then, forming coalitions to change the narrative that still hangs over us is under our control, as our afternoon panelists will surely remind us.
We are reminded here every day of both the responsibility and the possibility for change by our students—those who read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow4 in their social justice book club5 and told Professor Lindsey McDougle how it does and doesn’t comport with their experiences of communities, families, and friends impacted by the carceral state. Or those in Professor Mary Rizzo’s Humanities Action Lab, confronting the disgraceful history of inhumane treatment of immigrant detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center (sued successfully by our law clinic in 1995, but still continuing today).6 What is so key here, is that a fulsome public dialogue must take place, as Mary says: “including people who have no idea what’s going on and people who are deeply affected by it.”
We can’t bend the arc of history even a small way toward justice if we don’t talk, together, and what gives me hope is that the next generation wants to do more than talk. So, today, let us listen, talk, and coalesce across difference, intersecting around the shared urgency of doing better.
1. Charles Homans, How the ‘Perfect Storm’ Became the Perfect Cop-Out, The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2016.
2. Mark Krasovic, The Newark Frontier: Community Action in the Great Society, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, April 2016.
3. Timothy Stewart-Winter, Queer Law and Order: Sex, Criminality, and Policing in the Late Twentieth-Century United States, The Journal of American History, June 2015, pp. 61-72.
4. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, N.Y., Revised Edition, 2012.
5. The Social Justice Book Club was initiated by Professor McDougle as part of the first year curriculum for the Honors Living Learning Community at Rutgers University-Newark in 2015.
6. Professor Rizzo’s students traced the history of the detainee’s uprising at the then-named Esmor Detention Facility in 1995, contributing to a travelling exhibition on Global Dialogues on Incarceration as part of the Humanities Action Lab. The Exhibition will be on display at the Gateway Center Gallery, Fall 2017.